Saplings and gowns: Quirky graduation traditions

Mark Santrach
Students graduating from the University of Notre Dame's School of Architecture construct an assortment of model buildings, bridges, monuments and skyscrapers and attach them to their mortarboards. Pictured is 2014's valedictorian, Mark Santrach, an architecture major from St. Paul.
Courtesy University of Notre Dame

Congrats, graduate! Here's your diploma ... and a tree sapling?

That's what happens on at least two campuses in the United States each year, as students bid college life farewell.

Other schools send their students off into the world by allowing them to play children's games or ring bells.

Here's a look at some of the offbeat ways schools say goodbye to their graduates.

Connecticut College and Warren Wilson College

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At commencement, graduates of Connecticut College are given Eastern white pine saplings to carry.

The tradition began with the Class of 1993. The school says the sapling "represents the tree on the College seal and symbolizes each student's continuing connection to the college."

The school is also known for its laurel chain tradition at commencement ceremonies. Women from the junior class, dressed in white, carry chains of laurel that graduating seniors pass through.

At Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, graduates also receive tree seedlings, usually hemlock saplings, to represent new beginnings.

"Just as each graduate leaves the College to go, lay down roots, and grow, the graduate is encouraged to plant this tree seedling away from campus to represent his or her mark as a Warren Wilson graduate in the greater world," the school says.

The University of Notre Dame

Imagine waiting four years (or more) to climb a staircase. That's a tradition at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

The front steps that lead to the second floor of the school's administration building — which houses its famous golden dome — are off-limits to students until after they graduate.

It dates back to the days of the Rev. Edward Sorin, the school's founder, when only faculty were allowed to use the steps. That rule originates in 19th century porch etiquette and smoking rituals.

University of Notre Dame architecture graduates
Students graduating from the University of Notre Dame's School of Architecture decorate their caps with an assortment of model buildings, bridges, monuments and skyscrapers.
Courtesy University of Notre Dame

According to tradition, it was only after graduating that a student was "deemed equal enough to ascend the steps and to smoke on the porch with his professors." Though it's not against the rules to walk up the school's Main Building steps, the tradition lives on today.

In another commencement tradition, students graduating from Notre Dame's School of Architecture take decorating their caps to a whole new level — er, levels. Grads proudly show off their skills by constructing an assortment of model buildings, bridges, monuments and skyscrapers and attaching them to their mortarboards. The tradition has been going strong for about 20 years.

"Needless to say, the architecture seating assignment during the University Commencement Ceremony is located in the back rows of the main floor section," the school says.

Rhodes College

This Tennessee college has a similar "off-limits" tradition to Notre Dame, this one involving the seal of Rhodes College.

The tradition goes that, if a student steps on the seal, he or she will not graduate on time, if at all.

Seniors finally get a chance to cross the seal during commencement.

Rutgers University and the College of William & Mary

Graduating seniors make louder statements on the campuses of Rutgers in New Jersey and William & Mary in Virginia.

At Rutgers, students ring the Red Lion Bell when they begin their studies during new student convocation and again at the end of their time at the school.

The bell is named after a former tavern called the Sign of the Red Lion, where the university held its first classes in the 1770s.

At William & Mary, students ring the ceremonial Wren bell after they finish their final class.

Smith College

At Smith College in Massachusetts, graduates don't get their diplomas — at least not right away.

Following the commencement ceremony, grads gather at the Laura Scales/Franklin King terrace to form several circles in a large ring. Diplomas are then passed around each circle, with graduates leaving the "Diploma Circle" once they receive their own.

This tradition dates back to 1911 and was originally called the "Great Ring" and then the "Magic Circle."

Hamilton College

Graduates at this New York school present the college president with a green apple.

It's a nod to the school that joined hands with Hamilton.

Hamilton College graduation
Graduates at Hamilton College in New York present the college president with a green apple.
Courtesy Vickers & Beechler

Kirkland College was founded as a women's college in 1968 and merged with Hamilton College a decade later. The green apple was Kirkland's emblem.

Since 1979, graduating students have presented an apple to the president "as a way of acknowledging Kirkland's principles of diversity, flexibility and free inquiry," the school says.

Williams College

At each commencement at Williams College in Massachusetts, a watch is dropped from the 80-foot spire of the school's chapel. It's said that if the watch breaks, the class will be lucky.

It's a tradition that began in 1916. Williams College Archives & Special Collection notes:

A clipping from the Springfield Republican dated June 21 of that year said: "one of the most interesting occurrences of the afternoon took place on the spur of the moment from the top of the chapel tower immediately after the singing of 'The Mountains.'

Members of the class had been remarking about the very great height of the tower and wondering what the effect would be upon the body of a person leaping off, when suddenly someone suggested that a piece of mechanism that is usually considered unbreakable be tossed down — an Ingersoll watch.

A collection was taken up by the class at once and one of the 'dollar brand' was bought. ... With great solemnity, the article was tossed off.

Upon rushing down to the foot of the tower, the watch was found, imbedded in the earth, somewhat battered and beaten, the case very much scratched, but the works still ticking valiantly away and the time registered 3.43 correct to the minute."

Wellesley College

How does some child's play sound?

Students at Wellesley in Massachusetts enjoy Hooprolling, during which seniors in graduation robes roll — and race — wooden hoops on Tupelo Lane.

Hooprolling at Wellesley College
The 2015 Hooprolling competition at Wellesley College. Seniors, clad in graduation robes, roll and race wooden hoops on Tupelo Lane.
Courtesy Richard Howard | Wellesley College

It began as an activity on May Day, when students dressed up in children's clothes to play games as a way to escape from the real world. Now, Hooprolling is held in late April.

The winner gets quite the prize. Said to be the first to achieve happiness and success, she gets carried away by her classmates and thrown into Lake Waban.

The Blake School

Let's not forget about high schools. At Blake in the Twin Cities, seniors have been placing an object on Blake's Head of School while accepting their diplomas as a way to "give back." Everything from stickers to beads to glow-in-the-dark bracelets have been used.

A newer, serious tradition involves graduates carrying a rose for someone close to them who recently passed away. Students put their roses in a vase when they receive their diplomas.